Interconnected

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 15th

Okay okay okay, let's have one more hardware-ish coffee morning to wrap up 2016...

Thursday 15 December, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... More info here.

Might be 5 people, might be 25, might be just me and my email. Feel especially welcome if you are NOT A DUDE because it's weird otherwise. All super relaxed and friendly. I'll bring Christmas crackers if I remember and we can all wear hats.

See you on the 15th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 10th

Time for a hardware-ish coffee morning...

Thursday 10 November, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

You know the score: No intros, no presentations. Just a corner at a handy cafe and seriously talk to EVERYONE it's worth it. Bring prototypes if you have em, and if you don't then your good self is enough... especially if you're interested in hardware, discovering spectacular new business models that make delivering hardware worth it (sigh), Kickstarter, how to get to manufacture, tinkering, etc, etc.

Sometimes there are four of us, sometimes 14. Once there were 24. All super relaxed and friendly. Come along!

(This coffee morning is on request. Somebody got in touch because they want to bring some early protos. Awesome!)

My secret agenda -- I'm heading up R/GA's newest startup program and we're investing in hardware and Internet of Things companies. I'm on the hunt for great startups. But if you're interested in the program, don't feel you need to come to this... coffee morning is about hanging out with everyone there, not about me. To talk program stuff, we can always Skype. Book a time here.

See you on the 10th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, join to the mailing list.

Visiting Berlin, and some thoughts on the new IoT program

I'm meeting a ton of interesting startups in the course of outreach for this new Internet of Things accelerator in London. What's working best is turning up at events and talking about it -- because what we're doing isn't typical, I guess, and it needs a bit of an intro. More about that further down this post...

Berlin

I'm off to Berlin this week. Spending a few days because the Internet of Things scene is well developed, and there are a ton of connected hardware startups.

So, here's where I'll be. Please sign up to any and all!

  • Thurs 13 October, 7pm. IoT Berlin meetup at IXDS. Hosted by Martin Spindler. I'll be speaking about the new program... plus sponsoring the drinks which is maybe more of a draw
  • Fri 14 October, 9am. Hardware-ish coffee morning is spreading to Berlin! Same format at London: Coffee, nice people who are doing hardware or curious, chat, super informal. Here's Martin's announcement. Location: Distrikt Coffee. Should be fun hanging out, bring prototypes if you have em.
  • Fri 14 October, 11am-4pm. Opportunity for one-on-one chats at. Betahaus are kindly lending me a space to hang out for the day. Details here. If you'd like feedback on your startup or have questions about the program, drop me a mail with when you'd like to come along. My work email is best: matt.webb@rga.com
  • Sat 15 October, afternoon/evening. I'll be at Betapitch, on the jury and meeting startups. If you're there, say hi!

Program

I travelled to the states a couple of weeks back to meet alumni from R/GA's previous programs. I wanted to get how it works from the horse's mouth, if you know what I mean.

My conclusion is this... it's an investment package (£75k in the case of the new London program) plus 12 weeks to take the 10 startups in the cohort through a traction step-change.

How that works is via carefully selected mentors, and a lightweight curriculum of workshops (say, on performance marketing, depending on what folks need), but MAINLY

  • Making use of R/GA's creatives and strategy folks. There's an assessment at the beginning to identify what one or two things would unlock growth for each company. Maybe it's a finessed business model which we can get to through market sizing; maybe it's a sales deck, or messaging strategy, or refreshed brand. Maybe it's how to best tell the story of some amazing tech but in a newly professional way. So we figure that out, then deliver that thing.
  • Making use of the client networks. Most startups could benefit from partnerships with corporates -- either pilots towards becoming customers, or because a partnership would prove out some of the business model. That's tough in one or two meetings. But R/GA knows its client network really well, and we're getting to know the Innovate UK of smart cities and innovation hubs too (the government, via Innovate UK, is a partner in the program). Over 12 weeks, we can work to make something happen. I like this because it's time-boxed: If it doesn't work out, the startup hasn't wasted their time trying to work with corporates who are typically pretty slow. If it does... well that's some great traction and something great to show off about.

At the end of 12 weeks, there's the usual demo event, and that's usually also firing a starting pistol for an investment round. There's a ton of help with creating the pitch and pitch deck too.

Imagine coming out of the program and having one or two new big names on the traction slide.

Because R/GA has a stake, interests are aligned on long-term success -- I met a startup in NYC who went through the connected devices program there 2 years ago. They're now 30 people, still in the R/GA NYC office, and keen to stay there because of the access to people and new connections.

So I think of this more like a growth-focused program. I'm moving away from using the word "accelerator." The investment terms are friendly to slightly later stage startups (i.e. the hardware is at least at prototype stage) and perhaps that's where the R/GA approach works best.

Stages

I say "stage," that's not what I mean. Some startups are great at hardware but - because attention and people budgets are limited - a bit too lean on the sales, marketing, and partnerships side. Some are brilliant at the business side but need help developing the hardware.

There's a lot of support in the London ecosystem for early hardware development (let me know if you need pointers), but in our ground floor space, we don't have a machine shop. We'll be making room for physical work, but that's not the focus.

The gap I'm wanting to fill is, ok, you've got the hardware, but the service around it: How to sell that. Or you're between Kickstarter and shipping, ok how to get all the ducks in a row so this becomes a serious business.

Growth.

Why hardware?

I talk a lot about connected hardware, even when I'm talking about the Internet of Things. And with IoT, surely I could be talking about platforms that are software-only? Big data analytics, device provisioning, security, etc. There's a lot. And yes, I love that.

But I'm especially interested in hardware. For me, hardware is a signal that all the power of software and the web is being applied to the real world. The hardware doesn't need to be complex or involve a massive breakthrough -- in fact maybe the simpler the better.

Once you apply hardware, you start being able to tackle problems like food waste, retail, soil, gestural interfaces, and power. In short, where we live.

Links

There's more info about the program on the website.

We're having an open house event in London the evening of 27 October. Sign up here.

Applications close 14 November. The program runs February to May 2017.

Happy to chat on Skype about whether there's a good fit. Book some time in my calendar here.

Upcoming chances to meet in Amsterdam, Berlin, etc

So I'm heading up this startup accelerator for IoT and connected hardware. Applications close 14 November. I've just been in the states seeing how previous programs have run. It's all pretty excellent. More on that later.

Right now I'm in outreach mode. I'm meeting as many startups as possible in order to spread the word, and to get a better sense of what the current challenges and opportunities are.

In return, I'm happy to share my take on the business and product, make connections to potential partners and investors where I can, and answer questions about how this particular accelerator works.

All of this is usually quite ad hoc, but there are a few convenient times coming up:

  • Amsterdam. I'll be at Makerversity in Amsterdam on Friday 7 October. We'll be hanging out and having coffee in the afternoon, sign up here. More focused meetings also possible.
  • Berlin. I'm in Berlin for a few days, and will be running office hours at Betahaus on Friday 14 October. Got an Internet of Things or hardware startup? Sign up to meet.
  • Skype. The problem with coffee meetings is you only spend time with startups who are nearby. So on Wednesday afternoons though October, I'll be at my laptop ready to speak. Choose a time here.

Of course I'm always up for meeting over coffee. Drop me a line if you want to set something up: matt at interconnected dot org

Hardware-ish coffee morning, Thursday 15th

I am BACK FROM MY SUMMER HOLS, it's raining outside, and I am in the mood to hang out with hardware folks. Let's have a hardware-ish coffee morning?

Thursday 15 September, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club, 100 Leonard St.

(Timed to follow the Internet of Things conference ThingMonk, so if you're in town for that, do come and hang out for coffee too.)

Usual drill... there's no standing up and doing intros, or anything super formal. We just meet in a convenient cafe and hang out. Folks are often involved in the hardware scene somehow, whether it's making stuff for a hobby, figuring out how to do manufacturing, or in the middle of their Kickstarter campaign. All pretty chilled. Bring prototypes if you got em.

tbh it might just be me and thee. But that's fine, we'll have a cuppa and have a chat.

I have a secret agenda -- I'm heading up R/GA's newest startup accelerator and we're focusing on hardware and Internet of Things startups. Announcement was just the other day. So I'm thinking about what kind of support startups really need, and I'm talking to as many people as possible about that.

See you on the 15th!

ps. for email updates about hardware-ish coffee mornings, subscribe to the mailing list.

Two obvious financial tips

I think the LinkedIn euphemism for it is a "portfolio career," but really what that means is I have a bunch of stuff on the go simultaneously.

So for the past three months I've been working with Google, directing a small team on an invention project. I have my vending machine bookshop; I advise a couple of hardware startups; I've been doing a bit of teaching, etc, etc. I am trying to avoid building another agency.

Working for myself: I love the independence.

Working for myself: Holy shit I hate thinking about cashflow. It destroys any kind of creativity I have, and stops me being casual.

There's a time for hustling, and there's a time for being casual. I find the most interesting opportunities emerge from coffees and talking widely. And interesting opportunities breed interesting opportunities -- as Jack says, you get what you do. So, doubly important to hold off accepting anything until the great stuff appears.

And if I haven't got much money in the bank? That's when I make bad decisions. I mean, this is a question of BATNA: If my Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is that I can't pay my mortgage, then I have to take whatever gig is going, at whatever terms.

I follow two rules to keep myself sane as an independent. This goes for freelancers, contractors, sole traders, and whatever other forms of "self-employed" there are out there.

It occurred to me that other people might be interested, so I thought I'd share them here.

Pay yourself a salary

Business money is not my money. To smooth out peaks and troughs, all gigs pay into a separate account and I pay myself monthly.

My salary is the same amount every month, and paid on the same day of every month.

(Business) taxes also come out of this float.

Build a runway

Once I take into account business expenses and my salary, I can calculate how many months I can survive without work. That's my runway.

If my runway is six months, I can sleep at night. If it's six months minus one day, that's a psychic shitstorm right there.

The reason being that it typically takes me three months to go from asking around to starting a gig (longer for the most unusual ones). Then let's say I get to invoice after a month's work, then it takes a month to get paid, then add a month as a buffer... that's six months right there.

When I started as an independent again, I kept my salary super low until I built up my six months runway.

There's a flip side: If the runway is too long, I stop being hungry. Being hungry is good.

Minimum viable financial management

Two tips. Not rocket science. I imagine most people have something similar. For me, this is what gives me room to be exploratory, and how I sleep easier at night.

Hardware-ish coffee morning, next Thursday

Hey, shall we do a July hardware-ish coffee morning? And, just for kicks, shall we try a different location?

Thursday 21 July, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at Machines Rooms, 45 Vyner St.

Last time we had a fun crowd. Thanks for coming Ross, Paul, Anders, Pauline, Josh, Avril, Phoenix, John, Lloyd, Tom, and Nat.

It was from Nat that I learnt about Machines Room -- it's a makerspace right in the middle of London's densest area for hardware startups. Tech Will Save Us is on the same road, for example.

There's equipment there, and coffee, and events. So next week is going to be a busy one of us doing stuff together! On Tuesday night, I'm taking part in an event about hardware startups and business models. Sign up here. On Wednesday, my bookshop vending machine Machine Supply will be moving there for its latest residency. And on Thursday morning, this hardware-ish coffee morning!

Usual drill... there's no standing up and doing intros, or anything super formal. The coffee morning is simply a friendly space to hang out, chat, get caffeinated, and compare notes on everything hardware related, whether that's making stuff as a hobby, figuring out how to do manufacturing, swapping interesting new Kickstarters, or just spending time with like-minded people.

Hope to see you at Machines Room next Thursday!

Hardware-ish coffee morning, this Thursday

I figured it might be fun to get together for coffee this week? Usual game -- nothing formal, just hanging out in a cafe with a bunch of folks in the same game. Hardware startups, electronics, physical installations for work, hobby Internet of Things stuff at home, or simply following along by backing tons of Kickstarter projects...

I'll be at the Book Club (100 Leonard St) from 9.30am on Thursday 16 June.

Come join me! Would be great to catch up. I'll make sure I have some Machine Supply badges with me.

There's a newsletter for these announcements. Subscribe here.

How my Twitter bot makes personalised animated GIFs

Ben Brown noticed that my bot @5point9billion made him a personalised animated GIF when it tweeted him yesterday (on the occasion of light that left Earth as he was born, right at that moment passing the star Iota Pegasi, a little over 38 light years away). And he was curious about how it did that. So:

There's a previous write-up about @5point9billion here. From that post:

My new bot is called @5point9billion which is the number of miles that light travels in a year. The idea is that you follow it, tweet it the date of your birth (e.g. here's my starter tweet), and then it lets you know whenever you reach Aldebaran or wherever.

You get tweets monthly, and then weekly, and for the last couple of days... and then you pass the star. It feels neat, don't ask me why.

Since that write-up, I've also added a website to the bot. In addition to getting the realtime notifications on Twitter, you can sign in on the site and see what stars you've already reached.

Check this out: There's also a public view, with an animation. This is a 3D animated map of all the star systems we can see from Earth, within 100 light years. It sits there and rotated. You can type in your date of birth, and it'll show you what stars you've already reached.

I made this public view as a "kiosk" mode when @5point9billion was exhibiting at the Art of Bots show earlier this month. The stars were laid out on the floor, fanning out from the Sun which was right by the kiosk. Here's a photo. It was good fun to walk out from the Sun till you find the star you've just passed. And then to walk out to about 80 light years and think, hey, most people die around this point, and look at the stars falling just further from you and think, hey, I probably won't reach those. Huh.

The star map is drawn and animated in Javascript and WebGL using three.js which I really like.

And doesn't it look kinda the same as the personalised star map that the bot made for Ben? Yup.

Making animated GIFs

I knew I wanted to tweet out personalised, animated star maps, whenever a bot follower passed a star (there are over 500 followers, and between 2 and 5 of them pass a star each day).

Routes I considered but discarded pretty fast:

  • Generating the star maps offline. For sketching on my Mac, I use a Python drawing package called PlotDevice -- this is what I used to make the first quick-and-dirty star map. I don't like generating graphics offline because I want the ability to tweak and change my mind
  • Drawing the graphics frame by frame using a dedicated package like Cairo. But I already have star maps in Javascript for the browser. I don't like the idea of having two routes to draw the same graphics for different outputs. Feel like a lot of work

This is the rendering pipeline I settled on:

  • The source animation is the same animation I use for the website... it's drawn in Javascript using three.js. It's just a page on my site
  • I already have queues and asynchronous processing on my website. The website is all Python because that's my preferred language, and I have a my own Twitter bot framework that I'm gradually building up (this is a whole other story)
  • When a user passes a star, the machine responsible for that task adds a tweet to the send queue, and flags it for requiring media
  • At the appropriate time, the queue runner loads the animation page using PhantomJS which is a web browser that can run headless on the server. It's possible to drive Phantom from Python using Selenium
  • Because the animation is created on demand, and generated just for this tweet, it can include personalised information like today's date, and the name of the user
  • The animation exposes a single Javascript function, step(), that renders the next frame. Phantom has the ability to reach into a page and make Javascript calls
  • Using Phantom, each frame of the animation is generated by calling step(), capturing as a screen shot (as a PNG) to an in-memory buffer, and then down-sampling to half its original dimensions (this makes the lines sharper)
  • Using images2gif (this is the Python 3 version of the library), the frames are assembled into an animated GIF, and saved as a temporary file
  • The GIF is optimised by shelling out to gifsicle, a command-line tool for that purpose
  • Finally, the media is uploaded to Twitter using Tweepy. Technically Twitter supports animated GIFs up to 5MB, but this is only available using a kind of chunked upload that Tweepy doesn't yet support, so the GIFs have to come in under 3MB. Twitter returns a media ID, which the code associates with the queued tweet in my send queue, and that is posted when its time comes round. (The send queue ticks every 40 seconds, because Twitter rate limits.)

If you're curious, here's the source animation on the website. And here's how it looks in a tweet.

If you want, knock the "draw=1" off the URL -- you'll get a blank page. Then call step() in your browser's Javascript console and see each frame being generated.

There's a wrinkle: Phantom doesn't support WebGL, so the star map animation in three.js had to be re-written to draw directly to canvas... which three.js supports but you have to add custom sprites and a few other things. It gets hairy, and I'm super happy to have worked with @phl on that side of things -- he looked after the Javascript drawing with his amazing code chops.

Another wrinkle: PhantomJS 2 (which this requires) installs on the Mac using Homebrew just fine, but is a pain to build on Ubuntu which is what my server runs. There's a pre-built binary here.

In summary, this is a rendering pipeline which:

  • Fits my web-first approach... there's no separate drawing package just for these animations, so debugging an image is as simple as opening a browser window
  • Minimises the number of moving parts: I've added the ability to create images using Phantom but that's it, there's no separate drawing package or offline rendering
  • Is agile: I can tweak and change last minute

What else am I using this for?

I prototyped this rendering pipeline with another Twitter bot, @tiny_gravity which just does a tiny particle simulation once every 4 hours. Sometimes it's pretty.

This animation doesn't use three.js for drawing, it uses processing.js, but the principle is the same. Again, the animation is just a webpage, so I can tweak the animated GIFs in the same way I tweak the rest of my website and bot behaviour. Here's that animation as a tweet.

One of the things I'm most enjoying about having multiple projects is how they cross-pollinate.

My main side project right now is my bookshop-in-a-vending-machine called Machine Supply. Here it is at Campus, Google's space for entrepreneurs in Shoreditch, London.

It tweets when it sells a book. Because of course it does.

The selection is changed over every Monday, and you'll notice that each of the books has a card on the front (here's a photo) because every book is recommended by a real human made of meat.

These cards and the shelf talkers (the label which says the item code and the price) are beautifully designed by my new friends at Common Works. But they're a pain to produce: For layout, the templates are in InDesign (which I don't have), then I have to send an Excel spreadsheet of the new stock over to Sam at Common Works, which he then puts into the template, and prints.

My new process comes straight out of the @5point9billion code. The browser is my layout tool.

So Sam moved from InDesign to the web, and here are this week's shelf talkers as HTML. This is part of my admin site, I've temporarily turned off permission checking to this page so you can see. The template is automatically populated with details from the weekly planogram. (A planogram is the merchandising layout for a set of shelves or a store.)

And here's the exact same page as a PDF. The pipeline is taken from @5point9billion: Phantom is used to grab the webpage, and this time render it to a PDF, complete with vector fonts and graphics. Because it's a PDF, it's super exact -- which it needs to be to print right and fit neatly on the shelf edge.

It's much quicker this way.

My rule for Machine Supply, as a side project, is that it should take the minimum of my time, never feel like an obligation, and I should be able to manage it on the hoof. As a hobby, it should be Default Alive.

So automation is helpful. I like that this mode of generating PDFs can be done without my laptop: I can do everything from my phone, and print wirelessly.

Anyway. You should follow @5point9billion! It's fun, and you get a personalised animated GIF every time you pass a star, generated with the most ludicrous rendering pipeline ever.

Hardware-ish coffee morning tomorrow

[Short version: Coffee morning on Thurs 14 April in Old St! I sent this out to the coffee morning newsletter last week. Subscribe to the newsletter here.]

My Dearest Droogs,

We haven't had a hardware-ish coffee morning at all this year. I've had no Thursdays because I've been avec job for a few months earning coins. I know, I know, but it happens to all of us sometimes. Still, done with that now, and fingers crossed I can avoid gainful employment for a little while longer.

Let's hang out and drink too much coffee and talk about hardware! Same bat-time, same bat-channel:

Thursday 14 April, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club (100 Leonard St).

Same old format... If you're curious about, or working in... designing physical things, paper or weird sensors, installations, knitting, manufacturing, internet-connected doodads, retail for hardware startups, sculpture, investment, or whatever, please come along.

There's no formal intros so it's easy to sneak off if everyone is horrendous. (They're mostly not.) Come say hi to me when you turn up, and we'll make sure you chat with interesting folks. (Most everyone is interesting.) Everyone loves prototypes, so bring em along if you have em. There are usually one or two.

If you're a woman, or don't present or identify as a dude, please do feel welcome. It's a concern to me that this tech industry, while very human and egalitarian in its early days (this goes for mainstream tech and hardware startups too) appears to heavily skew to Mainly Dudes as time goes on. That's something I can push against, a tiny bit, by trying to ensure these coffee mornings don't go the same way.

(On which serious note: If you don't feel you would be welcome - obviously or in hidden ways - at a hardware-ish coffee morning, and you'd be willing to share your feedback privately with ideas of how I could improve the format, I'd like to hear. My personal email is matt AT interconnected DOT org. Thank you!)

See you on the 14th!

Matt

ps. I've got a new hobby and it's a robot bookshop that tweets. You can visit it! Here it is. It's called Machine Supply.